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October 22, 2010

Lycée Camille Claudel, Home to the Purple and Blue Cows

I finally started teaching yesterday after several weeks of introducing myself and observing. My first class was with the "Euro" seniors-- a designation for advanced students like AP or IB-- and I prepared a lesson for them about the use of attack ads in American elections. I showed them McCain's "celebrity" ad on Obama, and used an Obama ad where he compared McCain to Bush. I asked them to think about how they used images and music to manipulate the viewers. I did the same with Tarryl Clark/Michele Bachmann ads, and asked them which they found most convincing and why.

It was pretty successful, forcing the students to think critically. I was brimming with confidence going into my next class, with seniors who have specialized in English. I brought them a video the Duluth tourist office made about the city, thinking the kids would be excited to see where I come from. I'm in a really tiny room with nowhere to put my laptop, so I had to awkwardly hold it aloft so they could see. If you've never seen "Fresh Duluth," it's about 30 minutes worth of Lake Superior porn, cut with interviews with locals. Many of them zoned out, so I kept pausing it to say, "Pauline, what just happened?" "Euh... eye don' kno'." "Is that because you weren't paying attention?" "....yis." It was somewhat of a disaster.

Today I had two groups of sophomores, and I prepared a lesson for them about school spirit. The kids here go to school from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and they don't have any extra-curriculars. No sports teams. No music ensembles. No assemblies. No mascot. No school colors. I brought in my Duluth East High School yearbook and tried to explain these foreign concepts.

Next I taught them some cheers from my high school. They really got into the clapping and stomping as they chanted:

"Oo rocks zuh 'ouse?
Zuh grey'ounds rock zuh 'ouse
And when zuh grey'ounds rock zuh 'ouse
Zey rock eet all zuh way down."

Another favorite:

"One! We ar' zuh grey'ounds!
Two! A leetle beet loudahr!
Sree! Ay steel can't 'ear yoo!
Foh! Moh! Moh! Moh!"

As an activity I had them choose a mascot and school colors for their own high school, Lycée Camille Claudel. The mascot had to share an attribute with the students. I told them we were the greyhounds because greyhounds are fast and always win the race, just like East High School athletes. I used escargots as an example, since it's a specialty of the region. But it's not a particularly fierce or fast animal, so they probably wouldn't want to choose it, I said.

"Les gazelles!" someone suggested. That was eventually shot down because they didn't think their classmates were elegant enough to qualify. "Les grenouilles (frogs)!" said another. Not too much enthusiasm for that one either.

"Les vaches!" said a girl who had been really into the cheers. "Cows?" I asked. "Why would you want to be the cows?" "Becooz, euh, zuh coos, zey talk a lot. And zuh studahnts, zey talk mooch az well. So we are zuh coos." Everyone nodded in agreement. And your colors? I asked. Blue and violet was the consensus. Why? "Becooz zey ah' well wiz each ozzer."

I asked the students to use their 10-day Toussaint vacation to create their own cheer for Camille Claudel. I can't wait to see what zey cohm oop wiz.

October 19, 2010

The Honeymoon is Over

Two Fridays ago I was moseying around Digoin, enjoying the sunshine before I headed off to Paris to meet up with my friends Ted and Danielle for the weekend. I took the route by the sun-dappled Loire River, and smiled to myself at the sight of six old French dames squished together on a bench, laughing like school girls. Everyone I passed said "Bonjour!" to me, and José, the friendly bartender at the Café de Paris, stuck his head out to wish me a good trip.

"I love the f out of this place," I thought to myself. "It's going to be so impossible to leave in but a few months."

I had a lovely time in Paris, and made it back just in time for the entire country to go on strike to protest the proposed change of retirement age from 60 to 62. The olds are upset that the government is merde-ing on their sacred benefits, which generations have fought for and for which they pay dearly  with their taxes. The youngs are none-too-pleased that the olds will be stationed in their jobs for two additional years, making it that much harder for them to find jobs in a country plagued with chronic unemployment.

I'm all for the Frenchies being involved in their governmental proceedings and fearlessly yelling, "Aw, hell no!" when they feel those supposedly representing them are no longer doing their jobs. But effectively bringing train travel to a standstill and thus forcing me to cancel all sorts of touristing? Not cool.

I took the bus to Lyon on Friday and was planning to spend the entire weekend there with my bridesbitch Lo. Instead of taking our 5:30 p.m. Sunday train back to Digoin, however, we were forced to cut our trip a day short to take an 8:20 a.m. bus to Paray le Monial, the town next to Digoin. Once we got there, there was supposed to be another bus to take us back to my palatial abode. But it was one big lie, France! Instead we inquired of a kindly looking gentleman if he knew of a taxi number, and he offered to take us to Digoin himself.

Lo and I popped into the Café de Paris to say hi to José, and then headed to a pizza place, one of a handful establishments in the entire metropolis open on Sundays. It was there, upon receiving a personal pizza as large as a car wheel (and you're not allowed to share pizzas there; it's well-marked on the menu... didn't you see?) and feeling the burning desire to take a snap of it, that I realized my camera was no longer in my purse. When we got home I tore through all my possessions and found it neither hither nor thither. The last place I know I had it was on the bus, and I have since both called and emailed the bus line and they insist it is nowhere.

I know a camera is just a thing, and things are replaceable, and I should really stop mourning this loss so hard. But I had some wicked awesome shots from Lyon of Lo and me playing Be the Statue and Be the Painting, as well as some excellent new candidates for Facebook profile pictures. So it felt like a beloved pet had just died.

After I had somewhat reconciled myself to this monumental loss, I came to the realization that I had absolutely nothing to do to amuse my dear friend for the remainder of her stay. We tried going to the grocery store at the edge of town, but we got there after it was closed and thus our 40-minute forced march in the biting wind was in vain. In the end we watched Jersey Shore with my frustratingly faltering internet connection, and then the one DVD I brought out here.

Everything in town remained closed on Monday, so we trudged back to the supermarket for amusement and the makings of dinner. Next we went to Digoin's one museum: la Musée de la Céramique. It was room upon room upon room of pottery. Old pottery. New pottery. Pitchers. Plates. Bowls. Bed warmers. Bed pans. I tried to translate our guide's impassioned speeches about the benefits of different types of glazes for Lo's benefit, but eventually my translations consisted of: "I don't know how to translate that," "I have no idea what she just said," "Glaze," "Chamberpot."

I had somewhat of an emotional breakdown last night because apparently my camera contained part of my soul I can never get back and Digoin is so cold and gray now and the strike is really making my life miserable and how am I going to go to Paris and Arles and Grenoble and Lyon next week during my vacation and nobody said Bonjour to me outside and this is a ghost town on Sundays and Mondays and OMD is this beyond-boring ceramic museum seriously the only thing I can take my visitors to?

There's an emotional cycle of culture shock you experience when you go abroad. First you're in the Honeymoon Period: everything's great and nothing could possibly be better than what you're doing. Then the reality that you're a billion miles away from your loved ones and everything familiar starts to sink in, and everything sucks. Then you stabilize and get used to things. Then, right before you leave, you love everything so much that you get depressed about going back home, where you will inevitably go through reverse culture shock.

I felt better this morning, when we encountered the high school students' protest on our way to get some pain au chocolat for breakfast. Among the protesters were several of the students I've had in class, and they said, "C'est l'assistante d'anglais! 'Ello Nina!" as they marched by. (They like me! They really really like me!) And I came home this afternoon to find a box from my parents that contained my Association sweatpants and my oversized North Branch Cinema sweatshirt, which have contributed to the immeasurable increase in comfort I'm currently experiencing. Then I was able to find a bus to go to my orientation in Montceau-les-Mines tomorrow, which I've been fretting about having to skip since the trains aren't running. And then a teeny tiny sun ray lit up a corner of my room for about three whole minutes!

I'm hoping my Stage 2 (Everything is Difficult) is swift and Stage 3 (Hey! I'm Figuring This Out) is right around the corner.

October 13, 2010

Running makes me sick

Before I came to Digoin I had this idea that I was going to take up running while here. There's not a whole lot to do, and as the town is situated at the crossroads of a river and canal, I figured I would have nothing better to do than kill myself running.

I have this memory problem where entire conversations and experiences go into a black hole, so in the weeks leading up to my departure I must have said to Matt, "Do you think I'm going to start running when I'm in France?" or "I think I'm going to start running when I'm in France." about a billion times. I was obsessed. I had dreams about it. I even bought an iPod armband.

Yesterday was the perfect first day for my new fit life. The entire country--including the teachers I had classes with-- was on strike to protest the change in retirement age from 60 to 62. Thus I had nothing to do (all the shops were closed) and nowhere to go (trains weren't running), so I decided to lace up my trainers and go for a leisurely jog in the lovely weather.

It. Was. Hell. It would appear I have a mild form of asthma, as evidenced by my burning lungs and the wheezing, oh the wheezing, after I'd gone about a mile. I walked about another mile down a lovely riverside road as I contemplated my craptastic performance. How in the f can I be so out of shape? I walk EVERYWHERE, sometimes hours every day, and I had just spent much of the weekend lugging suitcases (and my body) up and down several million flights of stairs in Paris. People like Brady can run entire marathons, but I can barely run a mile?

Plus, I woke up this morning with a terrible sore throat, which can only be an anti-gift my body protesting the torture I put it through yesterday.

So now I'm torn between being determined to improve by going at it several times a week, and prematurely throwing in the towel because running is just not good for the health.

October 11, 2010

Paris in 25 Hours

When I first found out I was headed to France, I had a large number of folks promise me a visit. I figured most of them were just saying that and never intended to hop the pond, but this weekend I got to play tour guide to my first round of promise-keepers! Ted and Danielle are on their first European excursion, and had about a week in Jolly Old England before they took the Eurostar over to Paris on Saturday morning. Their train got in at 11:30 a.m. after a slight delay, and they were due to leave Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. That means I had only 25 hours and change to show them the most magnificent city in the world. Ready? Allez-y!

12:30-13:00: After heaving our luggage up and down multiple sets of stairs in the metro, finding our hotel, and checking into our hotel, we took a a stroll down the Boulevard St. Germain des Pres. We stopped for some savory crepes on the way, and then poked around in the quarter's eponymous church for a look-see.

13:00-13:30: Our next stop was obvious: macarons at Ladurée, with an éclair for Ted. We brought our treats down to the banks of the Seine, where we nibbled them as we waited for our riverboat cruise.

13:30-14:30: We paddled in our Batobus toward the Ile de la Cité and the Ile Saint Louis, made a loop around them, and continued west until we stopped at the Eiffel Tower.

14:30-16:00: I had heard warnings for days that Paris, and especially the Eiffel Tower, were due to get terroristed. Thus I was beyond relieved that Ted and Danielle were content to just wander along the base of the tower rather than mounting it. Plus, the lines to get up stretched all the way to Digoin. So we artfully dodged the crap vendors, took a peek up the tower's innards, gazed upon the Champs de Mars, snapped some pics, and then got back in line to take the riverboat up to the Musée D'Orsay.

16:00-17:30: This is apparently the perfect time to go to the Musée D'Orsay, home to works by Van Gogh, Dégas, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Rodin, Renoir, and others. There was no line! Plus, I got in for free when I showed them my visa! Double huzzah. We gazed upon masterpiece after masterpiece until the museum shut its doors for the night.

17:30-19:00: Since we weren't going to mount the Eiffel Tower or the Arc De Triomphe, I wanted to take my buds up to Montmartre to give them a lovely, peaceful panoramic view of the city. We got off at the Abesses métro stop (tip: take the elevator to avoid the billion stairs to the top) and encountered a giant, noisy parade. I at first assumed it was yet another protest against the change of retirement age from 60 to 62, but we soon figured out it was to celebrate the grape harvest. We headed up to Sacré Coeur and encountered a mob of Parisians getting their wine-tasting on. After touring the church we spent a frustrating 20 minutes trying to make our way down one of the side streets so we could get outta there.

19:00-20:30: My Digoin friend Suzanne had recommended a restaurant for us to go to, but we were bone tired after all the stairs and the squishing and the walking uphill and the stairs and the walking downhill, so we just plopped down at the first good-looking restaurant we happened upon. Ted got escargots as a starter, we both had duck with honey sauce as a main course, and he had creme brulée for dessert. Danielle had a greek salad, boeuf bourguignon, and mousse au chocolat. My dessert was a very boozy mojito sorbet. We shared a bottle of Bordeaux.

20:30-21:00: I hatched a plan to take mes amies on a forced march through nighttime Paris so they could see some of the important things we wouldn't have time for on Sunday. Our first stop was the Moulin Rouge, which is on a very lewd streets with sex shops as far as the eye can see. We then took the metro to Opéra, so they could see the magnificent rococo building in real life after seeing the model in the Musée D'Orsay.

21:00-22:00: We walked down the Avenue de l'Opéra to the Louvre, the magnificent, gigantic palace that is now one of the world's most important art museums. We arrived just as the Eiffel Tower began its sparkle motion. Alas, my camera was unable to capture it properly, so instead you can feast your eyes on the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre.

22:00-23:30: We strolled along the Seine, encountering several groups of youngsters guzzling wine and beer en plein air. It's been awhile since I've been out in Paris on a Saturday night, so I don't know if that was just the usual Bacchanalia or if it was in honor of the harvest festival. We reached Notre Dame, and paused to watch a group of buff French rollerbladers make magic with their limbs along a course of overturned cups. We got a bit lost on our last leg of the trip, but we made it back to the hotel safe and sound, and promptly passed out.

9:00-10:30: After breakfast at the hotel, we set out for Notre Dame. Danielle and Ted toured the cathedral while I waited in line to go up the towers. This was a perfect plan, because by the time they were done exploring the line had stretched all the way to Digoin again. I got in for free by flashing my visa, and we climbed to the very tippy top. The cloudless day afforded magnificent views of the city.

10:30-11:00: We trucked over to Saint Chapelle, home to beautiful stained glass windows. We were properly awestruck, and glad we went.

11:00-12:00: I took a slight detour so I should show the bibliophiles Shakespeare & Co., an English-language bookstore where Hemmingway used to hang out. We got some panini sandwiches at a nearby street stand for lunch, and then hightailed it back to the hotel so we could catch the metro in time for our respective trains.

I'm proud of what we were able to see in such a short amount of time, but holy Jacques is it exhausting. 25 hours in Paris: c'est possible!

October 5, 2010

Chez moi

Some of you wanted to see my domicile. Well, voila my cell in all its glory. The door to the bathroom is on the left, my kitchen implements are on the right, and my bed is straight on till morning. Please note the omnipresent blue hue to the walls, which somehow manages to be as depressing as it is bright.

This would be my bathroom, home to the 2-ft-by-2-ft shower where I successfully contorted myself in order to shave my legs using four minutes' worth of hot water. I have since crowned myself the Leg Shaving Queen of France and celebrated with baguette and Nutella.

Welcome to my gigantic kitchen, where I can be often be found spreading goat cheese within a baguette or heating up water for pasta. I'm open to suggestions of what else I can create in this space. That white appliance is a large toaster oven with two hot places on top, and next to it is my dorm-sized mini-fridge.

This is my desk, where all the magique happens. It's also the most decorated corner of my cell. I would love it if you sent me things that I could tack on the walls to make them a bit less blue.

This picture gives you a better idea of the real wall color. That long gray drink of water is my wardrobe. I've yet to make the acquaintance of a French closet, but that just means there are way more Narnia possibilities here.

Everyone at my school keeps asking if I'm "bien-installé" (settled in), and after the purchase of a last few provisions today I feel like I finally am. I was kibbitzing with one of the secretaries this morning, who I told about my upcoming visitor, Loral. She said she would talk to the proviseur (headmaster) to see if I can move to another apartment that has two beds to better facilitate guests. She said she couldn't make any promises, but since there's just such an apartment that's currently empty she would try. So this may not be chez moi for long.

October 3, 2010

The creepiest (and best) museum in the world

Tomorrow all the language assistants in the Burgundy region will be gathering in Dijon for our orientation. Since I had nothing better to do, I decided to come a day early and check out Burgundy's largest city.

My No. 1 priority for tourist-ing was to visit the Mustard Museum, because, well, how cool is it that a mustard museum exists? Except it doesn't exist. At least not anymore. Quelling the desire to get right back on the train back to Digoin, I soldiered on and visited the huge (and free!) Musée des Beaux Arts in the Ducal Palace. After wandering around there for a few hours, I moseyed the streets of Dijon until I happened upon the Musée de la Vie Bourguignonne.

Quick aside: can I just say how awesome it is to go to museums by yourself? You can go at exactly your own speed and you don't have to pretend to be interested in things you aren't interested just so your companion thinks you're brainy. I highly recommend it.

So. Back to the Museum of Burgundian Life. I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this:

"Bonjour! We are two bare-breasted mannequins with ratty bits of hair stuck to our heads. We like to fight over this one arm between us and use it to slap each other when no one else is around. This is very Burgundian."

What followed was a series of vignettes from Burgundian life-- marriages, trapping babies in odd wooden contraptions...

I went through three such rooms all by my lonesome, giggling to myself and imagining I saw them move. Then I really did see one move! I jumped and yelped, "Oh my God!" Turns out it was a museum docent. I tried to explain to her as I clutched my racing heart, "Oh mon dieu! J'ai pensé que vous étiez un mannequin! C'est tellement affreux! (OMD! I thought you were a mannequin! That's really scary!)"

She descended into giggles. I gave a start when I saw another humanoid docent lurking around the kitchen scene. "Il y a trop de mannequins ici pour avoir des vraies personnes aussi (There are too many mannequins here to have real people as well), " I scolded him.

Next was a series of recreated storefronts. There was a candy shop, a butcher shop, a milliner's, a fur shop, a dry goods shop... and this. A shop of horrors.

Turns out it was supposed to be a hair salon. The lady on the left is getting her hair permed and the lady on the right is getting hers dyed. I think. Either that or they used hair salons as fronts for psychological experiments and/or lobotomies.  

She looks awfully serene for having such a contraption attached to her noggin, no?